Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Sea of Poppies by Amitar Ghosh

Zachary Reid, a free Black man in Baltimore, signed up as a carpenter on a former slave ship, the Ibis. By the time the ship had reached Calcutta, Zachary's status had risen to second mate and he was the only original crew member still on board. In 1838, the British had been making huge profits on the opium they controlled in India, but their markets in China were drying up, so another cargo was found for the unlucky Ibis.

Sea of Poppies is a mesmerizing saga that follows the many lives that cross the deck of the Ibis as it carries a cargo of indentured labourers bound for former slave plantations in Mauritius.

Amitar Ghosh wields words with much flair, drawing on seafaring slang, historical spellings and anglicized Hindustani. At times I felt like I was reading Jabberwocky, so frequent were the unfamiliar terms, and yet there was always enough context to grasp intent, if not exact meaning.

"This mate was from Macao, and as chuckmuck a rascal as ever you'll see: eyes as bright as muggerbees, smile like a xeraphim." (p. 192) "Hitching up her skirts, Paulette bolted away, glad to see that there was no one within earshot except a passing chobdar, two hurrying farrashes, three mussack-laden beasties, two chisel-wielding maistries, and a team of flower-bearing malis." (p. 229) "Ever since he lost his wife every larkin in town's been trying to bundo him. I can tell you, dear, there's a paltan of mems who'd give their last anna to be in your jooties." (p. 251)

If you want another taste, here is the description of a feast in the Calcutta home of Mr. Burnham, new owner of the Ibis: "There was green turtle soup, served artfully in the animals' shells, a Bobotie pie, a dumbpoke of muttongosht, a tureen of Burdwaun stew, concocted from boiled hens and pickled oysters, a foogath of venison, a dish of pomfrets soused in vinegar and sprinkled with petersilly, a Vinthaleaux of beef, with all the accompaniments, and platters of tiny roasted ortolans and pigeons with the birds set out in the arrowhead shapes of flocks in flight." (p. 232) Phew!

Take a trip back in time with some fascinating folk.

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